Friday, February 22, 2008

Oscar Preview: No Country For Old Men

The Coen Brothers have a penchant for delivering laconic killers. Most of their films center around fundamentally decent, if seriously flawed, individuals lost in the shadows of implacable mayhem. Blood Simple gave us a triple crossing Private Investigator. Fargo gave us a killer who made Steve Buscemi look like Robin Williams by comparison. The Big Lebowski set its genial pothead against a veritable syndicate of doom. These characters seem to live as the manifestation of the protagonists’ worst impulses, and as living consequences of their misdeeds.

From this mold comes Anton Chigurh, a killer whose very ethical code requires him to kill. And kill he does. No Country For Old Men has the mortality rate of a modern slasher. But Chigurh is not so quiet as the Coens' previous baddies. He talks, at least a little bit. He is confident, articulate and, to some degree, wise. His wisdom is not born of experience or intelligence, but rather the simply knowledge of how the story is going to end. His is a prophecy self-fulfilled.

No Country For Old Men is not a typical Coen Brothers film. There are no bumbling sidekicks or baffling non-sequitors. There are no silly moustaches or cheap southern accents. There isn’t even a film score. The film plays it entirely straight. We are allowed to observe as characters make every effort to talk and maneuver their way out of his grasp.

Chigurh is not a madman. In fact, his existence is very utilitarian. He uses a tracking device to locate his desired prey, and an air-compressor to eliminate physical barriers. His are the tools of law-enforcement, though the laws he enforces are his own. He does not kill so much as he deconstructs. In the end, his target is undone by his own misdeed. Chigurh is merely the messenger.

Ironically, Chigurh himself is chased by real law-enforcement. But unlike Frances McDormand’s affable Minnesotan genius, the grizzled Tommy Lee Jones’ pursuit ends in futility. As he gives chase, he struggles to grasp Chigurh’s tactics, his motivations, and his desires. If he can understand Chigurh, maybe he can make sense of his role in the world. But Chigurh can only be explained by his own internal consistency. Worldly standards do not apply.

Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem in a role that is so obviously Oscar-Worthy that I can’t see how he wins the thing) introduces himself by way of an ingenious piece of dialogue. Confronting an innocent gas station owner, he asks him to flip a coin. For what? For everything. Chigurh knows everything about this fellow, but remains undecided, and so defers to a higher power.

The scene is powerful for what remains unsaid, and we sense that this is the first time the owner has taken stock of his life. But Chigurh has begun doing so from the moment he walks into the shop. Remarkably observant, Chigurh is able to have familiar conversations with characters he has never met. More than an angel of death, he is not carrying out orders (we never fully learn of his motivations), though his actions seem inevitable.

All of this inevitability is played out against the vast expanse of the American South in the early 1980s. While most directors plague such landscapes with luscious sunrises and pregnant wind howls, the Coens’ camera simply observes. The hills and horizons are endless and unsolvable. The toughest men are lost against this wall of inhumanity.

At the end of the film, Jones is left muttering to himself about dreams and memories. Dressed down to his very essence, he too has been deconstructed by Chigurh. In one of the films finest moments, he recounts a dream about his deceased father. His father leaves him behind, and Jones is alone against the darkness. No flashback is needed. We can see the dream flashing before his increasingly vacant eyes.

So ends one of the finest films ever made.


Blogger Jerad said...

Normally I love reading your reviews, even when I (rarely) disagree with them. This one, however, seems to be written in a voice that either satirizes or mimics the City Pages reviews circa 1995. Maybe the Coens compel that in every reviewer, though.

BTW, what's up with not having a spoiler alert?

4:38 PM  
Blogger Kevin Sawyer said...

Meh, the outcome is not in doubt any point in the film, and many reviews have described the last scene.

The City Pages reviews were famous for discussing films without offering an opinion. I am clear about my opinion, and this is months after normal reviews have come out. I am trying to reflect on why they were selected as the year's best.

2:38 PM  

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